CAIRO -- Yemeni non-governmental groups on Wednesday voiced concern over a threat by the United Nations food agency to suspend some aid shipments to Yemen if the Houthi rebels do not investigate and stop theft and fraud in food distribution.
A statement by more than 35 local groups and charities called on the World Food Program to reveal "corruption" it claims surrounds its humanitarian work in Yemen.
"The silence of the WFP so far is considered collusion with the authorities to loot food from the mouths of the hungry people in Yemen," the statement said.
The U.N. humanitarian aid chief Wednesday accused the rebels of blocking humanitarian supplies traveling from areas under their control to government-held areas. Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that the rebels also recently informed humanitarian agencies that 72 hours' notice is required ahead of any movements instead of 48 hours.
He urged all parties of the war to "allow and facilitate safe, timely and unhindered humanitarian access," across Yemen.
The statement and Lowcock's comments came more than a week after the WFP said it collected evidence showing rebels diverted shipments of food sent to help alleviate the country's humanitarian crisis. The U.N. food agency threatened to suspend some aid shipments to Yemen if the rebels did not investigate and stop theft and fraud in food distribution, warning that the suspension would affect some 3 million people.
The World Food Program's ultimatum was unusually strong, underscoring how corruption has increased the threat of famine in Yemen, where the war has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
In a letter sent to rebel leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, WFP director David Beasley said on Dec. 31 that a survey done by the agency showed that aid is only reaching 40 percent of eligible beneficiaries in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa. Only a third are receiving aid in the rebels' northern stronghold of Saada, he said.
"If you don't act within 10 days, WFP will have no choice but to suspend the assistance ... that goes to nearly 3 million people," the letter said. "This criminal behavior must stop immediately."
The WFP said it obtained photographic evidence showing rebels seizing food and manipulating lists of aid recipients.
The Houthis, in turn, accused the WFP of politicizing the aid deliveries and accused the agency of sending expired food to Yemen. Relief workers expressed fears of retaliatory measures by the Houthis, either by holding aid trucks for long periods, or revoking visas for international aid workers as they have repeatedly done in the past.
The remarks by the WFP come shortly after an investigation by the AP found that across Yemen, factions and militias on both sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from reaching groups suspected of disloyalty, diverting it instead to front-line combat units or selling it for a profit on the black market.
The U.N. agency helps about 8 million hungry people in Yemen and has been working to increase its scope to reach a total of 12 million. It wants an overhaul of the relief system, including biometric registration, but says the rebels resist such measures.
The war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthi rebels occupied the capital and moved south, forcing the internationally-recognized government to flee and seek support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed air, land and sea embargoes, and its anti-Houthi air campaign has caused thousands of civilian casualties.